The Role of Literature in the

Making of the Nations of Europe:

A Socio-Semiotic Study



Itamar Even-Zohar
Tel-Aviv University




[...] in the spring of 1971 the two first and most celebrated manuscripts arrived [from Denmark to Iceland]. These were the Book of Flatey and the Codex Regius of the Eddic poems, and they came to Reykjavik in a Danish warship accompanied by a delegation of Danish ministers and members of parliament. On the morning of the 21st April the ship drew in to the quay in Reykjavik [...] Thousands of people had gathered to the quayside, and along the roads by which the visitors were to drive through the town children stood with Danish and Icelandic flags [...]



    This is how Jónas Kristjansson (1980, 89-90), the director of the Arnamagnean Institute in Reykjavik, describes the triumph of the Icelanders in the manuscript war with Denmark; he would later observe (1982, 25) that since then, "more manuscripts have been steadily arriving, and now some 900 have come home, together with numerous other documents." This manuscript dispute between Iceland and Denmark was preceded by similar wars between Denmark and Sweden some 300 years before. In the seventeenth century, however, unscrupulous competition on the matter of acquiring these manuscripts was not unheard of, and even such belligerent acts as sinking a ship loaded with manuscripts sometimes occurred. In Iceland itself, however, people did not care much for such cultural items at this time: As Kristjansson (1982, 24) notes, the pages were "cut out of the vellums and used for various purposes," and were even used to decorate clothing.

    It is certainly clear that neither the seventeenth- nor the twentieth-century manuscript quarrels had much to do with the vellums as artifacts. It was not the physical objects as such that were really sought. In the seventeenth century, it was generally their textual content which was so uniquely desirable; for in them each of the Scandinavian kingdoms expected to find precious historical information that could reinforce its claim to greatness and power. Similarly, in our century, reclaiming the manuscripts meant, for the Icelanders, the ultimate stage in legitimizing and confirming their national independence. It seems evident that in both periods, the heated quarrels touched deep feelings of self-identity, or more precisely, of "collective identity."

    This story, although singular in its details, is not unique as a manifestation of socio-semiotic structures. On the contrary, it is a magnificent illustration, as this paper attempts to show, of the function of literature in the making of many nations, and other culturally-organized groups, in Europe. In this sense it may, however, be a phenomenon that is peculiar to European history.

    Is "literature" in this sense in fact unique to Europe? This is not an easy question. There are perhaps no known organized societies which do not have some sort of "literature," or in other words, an activity during which texts are recited or read, to or by their members, either publicly or privately. It is true, however, that certain societies have had a reputation which would seem to make them more qualified than others to create and transmit such texts. For instance, in the Medieval Middle East, Arabs were considered to be "gifted" in respect to this occupation, as it were "by birth," while in Northern Europe, it was the Icelanders who were taken to be "born" writers and story-tellers.

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 1 of 11



© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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22.03.1996